Tony Robbins on the 6 Human Needs
Americans and the significance trap.
According to Tony Robbins, human beings have 6 different needs. Although we might each place different levels of importance on any particular one, all of us need:
1. Certainty: Assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure.
2. Uncertainty/Variety: The need for the unknown, change, and new stimuli.
3. Significance: Feeling unique, important, special, or needed.
4. Connection/Love: A strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something.
5. Growth: An expansion of capacity, capability, or understanding.
6. Contribution: A sense of service and focus on helping, giving to, and supporting others.
Are these really “needs?” Absolutely. If you don’t have some certainty, then your life feels like it’s in chaos. If you don’t have uncertainty, then it feels like you’re in the world’s most boring rut. If you have no significance, then you may feel like you’re worthless. If you have no connection/love, it’s like being in solitary confinement in prison. Without growth as a person, there is no happiness and there is no hope that things can improve. If you’re not making a contribution of any sort, then your life may feel meaningless.
All this is useful information to have because you can examine your own life, determine if your needs aren’t being met and make adjustments. For example, if you feel like your life is meaningless, then you may want to do some volunteer work or help someone locally to give yourself a feeling of contribution. If you are feeling like your life is chaotic and out of control, even something as simple as going to bed at the same time each night, getting up at the same time each morning, and making your bed first thing may give you enough of a sense of certainty to start getting things going back in the right direction.
That being said, there’s another important insight related to these needs that Tony Robbins had. That is the order matters. Particularly the order of the first two needs. The reason that’s the case is that even though everyone has all of these needs, they’re not all equally important to people, and the ones we focus on the most tend to shape our lives.
For example, let’s imagine a group of roughly similar and capable twenty-two-year-olds with different values. The one that most values significance might want to be a rock star. Another that loves uncertainty? He might be planning to travel Europe and “find himself.” How about a woman who values contribution? She might be planning to go overseas and serve the poor. Growth? That kid might be planning to go to multiple self-development seminars this year while going to graduate school. Connection/love? She might be desperate to get married and have kids. What about the kid who values certainty? He may be looking to move back home, get a house next to mom and dad, then go to work in the family business.
Obviously, these are gross generalizations, but the point is the needs you most want to fulfill shape the way you think, the way you behave, and the way your whole life turns out.
However, according to Tony Robbins, there are two of these needs that can become a problem if they’re at the top of your totem poll.
The first one is not necessarily a big surprise. It’s certainty. Why can certainty be a problem if you put too much value on it? Because it can be dull. It can be boring. It can get you into a rut that keeps you from pursuing your other needs, particularly growth which is often uncomfortable. Again, that doesn’t mean that certainty is bad. It’s not. After all, how could it be if it’s a “need” we all have? It’s just something that can become a problem if you overemphasize it in your life.
The second potentially problematic need is one that should worry people because it’s heavily overemphasized in our culture. That is significance. Why is significance a problem?
Well, first of all, the need for significance is essentially bottomless for people who care about it a lot and you see this in their behavior. Do you know what a guy making a million dollars per year typically wants? To make two million per year. What about a musician with a top-10 record this year? He wants his next record to do even better. In fact, if he gets it up to #1, he’ll want the next one to also be #1, but with even more listeners. If a basketball player has an incredible year and leads his team to a championship, what does he want to do next year? He wants to have an even better season and have his team repeat. If two thousand people like one of your tweets today, you’ll be thinking, “Okay, I need to beat two thousand.” People who go all in on the significance train – and I can tell you this from past personal experience – don’t ever willingly stop, think, “I’ve done enough” and start smelling the roses.
Moreover, the public is fickle. Tastes change. People also age out of demographics or simply can’t do what they used to physically or mentally. This leads to fame being fleeting. The most beautiful woman on planet Earth today isn’t going to be in the top million in 30 years. The biggest bands on earth may have trouble filling up a small club in a decade or two. The greatest athletes, biggest stars, and most talked about people may be rarely thought about in a decade or two. So, if significance is your highest value, even if you’re getting that bucket filled today, the time is going to come for almost all of us when it feels empty.
Worse yet, no matter who we are, significance is a race all of us are destined to lose on some level because no matter who you are and how big of a deal you may be, there’s always someone bigger and better out there.
Someone has to be the richest, the best looking, the best athlete, the one everyone’s talking about – and it’s almost certainly not you or me. Even if it is, guess what? Very soon, it won’t be because that’s the nature of the world. In other words, significance isn’t bad. On the contrary, it’s a human need. However, if you make significance one of your highest priorities, you’re going to spend your life on a treadmill that runs continuously at ever-increasing speed, until you eventually tumble off the back, deeply unsatisfied because you simply can’t keep up anymore.
The reason this is relevant is that in the social media era, Americans have been increasingly embracing significance as our most important need. Being a celebrity has always been a much-desired lifestyle, but the world has changed in a way that makes it seem more attainable than ever. Being famous like Kanye West, The Rock, or Tom Cruise? That’s still out of reach for most of us, but social media has flattened the fame game.
For example, I was at dinner last month and one of my friends told some people I hadn’t met that I was “famous.” After all, Right Wing News was enormous, I know a lot of big-name conservatives, my book 101 Things All Young Adults Should Know was one of the top 50 selling self-help books in America at one time and ten thousand plus people read almost all of my Substack columns. I laughed when I heard him say that and said, “It’s more like I’m ‘famousish.’”
Well, guess what? “Famousish” has never been more obtainable in all of human history than it is today. There are countless people across many different disciplines and social media platforms who have huge numbers of people who know who they are or follow their exploits. Just as a quick example, some of the people on YouTube that I follow have a million or more followers and most of you have probably never heard of them. If that’s the case, don’t feel bad because my guess is that at least 95% of the general public couldn’t pick any of these people out of a lineup:
If we start talking about people with massive numbers of followers on some form of social media that went viral, became a meme star, that had a few appearances on TV, that appeared on big podcasts or that broke out some other way, there are now tens of thousands of them that are at least “famousish.” Once you get there, it may only seem like a hop, skip, and a jump to real fame. Maybe not Donald Trump-level fame, but perhaps with a little luck, you could be as famous as Jake Paul, Tucker Carlson, or Dr. Phil. Even if you can’t get to that level of significance, maybe you can at least get some validation and affirmation via social media. Having a few hundred men telling you that you’re hot after you post a photo in a dress is a big ego boost for a woman. All your friends “oohing” and “aaaahing” because you look like you’re doing something cool on Instagram can give you a big head. Even getting thousands of people retweeting and liking a tweet that you put out can be heady stuff:
Do you know what difference getting 14,000 likes on a tweet makes in your life? Pretty much none. Yet, do you know what an awful lot of Americans would say to get 14,000 likes on a tweet? ALMOST ANYTHING.
That’s a problem because it creates inauthentic behavior. It leads to people saying and doing what they think will be POPULAR, not what they really believe or think will make the world a better place. It encourages people to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking like a brand, instead of a human being. “How do I get out to a bigger audience? What’s the most appealing thing I could say without alienating people?” “Uh-oh, some people don’t like what I said. How do I do damage control?”
Worse yet, it puts millions and millions of people in a position where they get all the negatives of significance-seeking, without the actual significance. If you’re the typical teen girl, desperate to be liked, comparing yourself to Kim Kardashian, or a regular guy who values being significant above all else looking at the Mr. Beasts and Joe Rogans of the world getting all the shine, it’s easy to see how it could make you unhappy.
Have you ever wondered who these “haters” are that spend all day posting negative things about people they barely know? They’re people desperate for significance that they want at someone else’s expense and guess what? Ultimately, it’s going to be empty because even if they get that sick burn on Ted Cruz or LeBron James, they’re just going to want another validation hit a week later. It’s just a race that they’re guaranteed to lose.
That’s why as a society, we need to move away from pushing significance so strongly on people. Yes, everyone has an innate potential that they should try to reach (growth), but so many people have a mindset that says it doesn’t mean anything if everyone isn’t cheering them on for it.
When I look at a stay-at-home mom who goes over and above to take care of her husband and her kids, you know what I see? A success at life. When I see a dad, who doesn’t necessarily make that much money, but he volunteers at church, coaches his kid’s baseball team, and is there for his family, you know what I see? A success at life.
If you’re a wealthy celebrity and everyone knows your name, but you have a drug habit, your kids are a mess because of your terrible parenting, you treat everyone around you like sh*t and you need to go to a therapist every week because you’re so incredibly unhappy, are you a success? By the standards of the culture we live in that puts significance on a pedestal above everything else, the answer is “yes,” but I’d say “no.”
At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with significance, but as a culture, we’ve lost sight of the fact that things like love/connection, contribution, and growth are much MORE IMPORTANT. If you want to have a happy life, don’t lose sight of that and if we want to get a healthier culture, we need to get our priorities back in order.